January 18th, 2013
(Sorry about the delay with this, we had a slight issue with our blogs… More recent update on Soldier Hollow coming up!)
There’s something about arriving somewhere new in darkness that I love. It’s not that night that I care about, it’s the next day – waking up to new sights, landscapes, and if you’re lucky, places to explore.
Quebec City was just like that. Even if you’ve been to a certain place before, as I had with Quebec’s capital, it’s exciting to go back a second time, especially during a different time of year. I got my first taste of the French-speaking province in March at Canadian Ski Nationals. Organizers were able to pull off one race downtown, a team sprint, on the Plains of Abraham. That’s where the Quebec World Cup was originally supposed to be, and the organizing committee wanted to use nationals as a test event.
Melting snow in balmy temperatures forced the remaining races north to Mont Sainte Anne, where a 5 k loop at the nordic centre held up pretty nicely. The event turned out to be a success; it wasn’t on the Plains, but it worked. Organizers reconsidered their site and decided to move the World Cup sprints in front of Quebec’s Parliament building. They’d probably need manmade snow in early December, but they’d make it work. That kind of ambition piqued my interest.
So when I woke up Thursday morning, the day before the Friday-Saturday World Cup races, I couldn’t wait to see what the course looked like. They had laid most of the 850-meter loop out the weekend before, mostly on the grounds in front of Quebec’s governing house, but partially on a main street that was eventually closed to traffic. Sure, this might be expected for a city sprint, but not every city would give the go-ahead like this. Quebec was different.
The final product did not disappoint. The snow was hard-packed and pristine on Thursday, perfect for training conditions. One would’ve been hard-pressed to find snow anywhere else south of the city, but Quebec made it happen … in 10 days. As I skied about one hundred times around the loop (OK it was more like 10 times), I couldn’t get over how cool it was. The course practically banked against the walls surrounding Old Quebec, and with a series of sharp corners, it wove in and around the Parliament grounds.
This was also the first time I had been to a World Cup. The closest thing I could compare it to was my experience at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, but that was summer and China. This was cross-country skiing in Quebec. Both were pretty epic.
As I rounded the course for the eighth time, letting my mind wander and technique flop, I took note of the skiers around me – mostly racers. The good ones even had their names on their bibs. “Oh boy,” I thought, “Better get outta the way for that one… or that one! Yikes, they’re all over the place.”
Suddenly, I heard someone whoosh up behind me. “FASTERSKIERRR!” exclaimed Erik Flora, Alaska Pacific University’s head coach. Neither fast nor looking like a good skier, I quickly moved over and smiled. He was literally doing 100 laps testing skis.
Once I had gotten my fill and substantial feel of the course, I stepped out of the skis and took the bordering sidewalk back to the Hilton hotel on the course’s edge. That also struck me. Where else can you walk right out your door to ski? Well, probably a lot of nordic wonderlands, like Scandinavia and whatnot, but Quebec City? This place had won me over.
Of course, the races themselves were the highlight with thousands of screaming spectators hanging on barriers all the way around the course, waving a medley of Canadian and American flags. The most memorable moment came when Kikkan Randall won her second-straight race in Quebec – the individual sprint – and picked up a large American flag at the finish. Holding it high above her, she skied backwards down the finishing straight with Norwegian runner-up and third-place finisher from Sweden behind her. Randall looked to her fans along the fence line, many of which rode up from New England in buses. Several spectators had flown there from all over the continent – including Randall’s native Alaska – to watch the international event. Locals spoke French, but most everybody cheered; Randall’s success was North America’s.
When you’re a North American ski reporter, it doesn’t get much better than that. I left Quebec with a huge sense of fulfillment. If I never saw another ski race that cool again, it would be OK. At the same time, I didn’t want to come down off that high. Lucky for me, I had a two-day turnover before flying to Canmore, Alberta.
Part II: Canmore
I asked my coworkers while squished in the middle of the backseat during a six-hour car ride home from Quebec (with one beside me eating fast-food poutine), what’s your all-time favorite ski venue? “Canmore,” they all responded. There were a few additions and honorable mentions, with so many beautiful and exciting places in the world, how can you fit them all in? But Canmore, they agreed, was pretty darn unrivaled.
I couldn’t wait. It had been my dream to visit this ski/mountaineering town just west of Calgary since I first heard about it. The Canadian National Ski Team is based there along with several top domestic squads. Mountains supposedly sprang right up from the town, and I had seen pictures so I knew it wasn’t bull. But come on, I had seen high peaks before, impressive mountain ranges and snow-covered ridges.
But not like Canmore, I thought as I slowly glanced around the following Thursday morning. Anywhere you go in the town, whether on Main Street or up at the nordic centre, there’s an unobstructed 360-degree view that stirs up a very profound appreciation of nature. Not to get all gushy, but it’s that powerful.
At this point, you might think I see the world through slightly rose-colored glasses. (Meet me and you’ll understand why that’s funny.) But seriously, when you go from running along the top of Quebec’s old fortress for a practically aerial view of the city to skiing some of the best-groomed trails in the world (ask anyone) to alpine fields with a gigantic range behind them, it’s hard not to be positive. I call it like I see it, and during my first ski at the Canmore Nordic Centre, I saw several mule deer hanging out on the trail in front of me.
When the races started on Friday, it was back to that same high-energy feeling. “I am feeling very Olympic today,” I thought, quoting my favorite Disney film, Cool Runnings, which was about the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.
(I first remembered the movie when I arrived at the Calgary airport. “It’s not so much the heat, it’s the humidity that’ll kill you,” coach Irv Blitzer said as he led his Jamaican team out of the airport into the blustery cold. We passed the famous bobsled run and ski jumps on our way to Calgary. So cool.)
As the races played out, I realized they should have the Olympics here. The course was incredibly tough, putting athletes to the test in all disciplines. Conditions were solid and straightforward, which essentially evened the playing field. Racers from several different nations spoke of their affection to Canmore – it was hard, but beautiful.
Race organizers were experienced with three World Cups under their belt since 2005. This year marked the fourth and in 2016, they have another one scheduled in February (and likely again in December 2018), according to chief of competition Mike Norton.
Leaving the nordic centre and Bill Warren Training Centre, where Canada’s top skiers are based, I hoped to return soon. Quebec’s also on the World Cup schedule for February 2016 and is aiming for more races on a shorter rotation after that, so the sense is that the World Cup could more regularly stop in North America in the future.
Sometimes, the most impressive sights are in your own backyard – or the opposite end of your continent – not necessarily across the pond. As someone who loves to travel overseas, that’s important to keep in mind.